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January 01, 2018 Disabilities

Ways Around Roadblocks for Attorneys and Clients with Physical Disabilities

By: Lisa A. Tucker

It was a protest that made headlines: a group of people crawling up the steps of the United States Supreme Court.

The year? 2004. The reason?

They were supporting George Lane, a paraplegic man who wanted to sue the state of Tennessee for denying him equal access to a state courthouse. Lane had crawled his way to his court date. He argued that no one else should ever have to.

The Supreme Court agreed, holding that states were not immune from these types of ADA actions. The disability rights community celebrated. But even though courthouses now have to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act, attorneys and clients with physical disabilities still face roadblocks, and the issues are many and varied.

Lawyers with vision impairment, for example, may not be able to access court documents easily or skim through long documents with ease. While technology aids are on the market, they aren’t a failsafe; it’s especially difficult when attorneys need to find information outside of their own offices in places such as in the law library or the courthouse. Similarly, hearing-impaired attorneys often have difficulty following informal proceedings in court, especially when multiple people are speaking at once.

For attorneys who use wheelchairs, accessibility can present daily challenges. Accessing opposing counsel’s office may be particularly challenging, as other offices may not be set up to accommodate their needs. One attorney with multiple sclerosis recently wrote a New York Times op-ed describing the difficulties she had hearing the judge during a sidebar as a result of being seated well below the judge on the elevated bench. Even snow on the sidewalk may make appointments out of the office difficult to access.

But the most common complaint for attorneys with physical disabilities is the lack of understanding they experience in the workplace. In a 2004 study, the California Bar found that almost half of lawyers with disabilities felt that they’d been denied employment opportunities due to their disability status. The ease of accommodation seemed to make no difference; the issue was perception, not feasibility. The lawyer with MS wrote in her op-ed about how embarrassed she felt when the judge explained to the jury that the attorney could not stand due to a health condition.

The most common complain for attorneys with physical disabilities is the lack of understanding they experience in the workplace.

As for clients with disabilities? The biggest obstacles to their seeking legal advice may lie in their attorney’s lack of planning. In fact, attorneys may not even know ahead of time that clients have special needs. When a client drives to the attorney’s office, he or she may not be able to park nearby or traverse the two or three steps up to the office building. Even if an attorney is aware that a client is deaf, finding an American Sign Language interpreter may be tricky and expensive (and, by law, not billable to the client). That may mean that the client has to ask a family member to take time off work to tag along—and that may lead to the family member learning confidential information about the client that the client might otherwise prefer not to share.

So, how should an attorney handle obstacles like these? Kirk Charles Simoneau, a lawyer who uses a cane, suggests that common sense solutions work best. First, if you know that your client has a disability, spend a few minutes before a meeting researching the disability and the kinds of accommodations that typically assist people with that condition. Second, ask the client. He or she will likely have encountered similar obstacles in other situations and can tell you, for example, whether reading software can decode PDFs sent by email. And third, make plans accordingly. If your client uses a wheelchair and is coming to your office, make sure there’s room in the conference room to navigate. Move your car from your assigned spot so that your client can park right next to the office.

And finally? Both attorneys and clients with disabilities stress that respect goes a long way. Don’t make assumptions. Even if you know someone who’s deaf, don’t just act like every deaf person is identical and has the same needs. Think about how you’d like to be treated. For example, the attorney with MS stressed that, had the judge just come down from the bench for sidebars, most of the embarrassment and hearing difficulties could have been avoided. And remember that clients and employees with disabilities may be limited in one small way but incredibly gifted in another. They’re likely great problem-solvers and used to being patient and understanding. fa

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Lisa A. Tucker

Lisa A. Tucker ([email protected]), is an associate professor of law at Drexel University Thomas R. Kline School of Law. A prolific author and commentator, she teaches family law, legal methods, and an advanced seminar on the U.S. Supreme Court. She also holds a master’s degree in public health.